The Secrets of Relevancy

In the previous section, we discussed how popular pages (as judged by links) rank higher. By this logic, you might expect that the Internet’s most popular pages would rank for everything. To a certain extent they do (thinkWikipedia!), but the reason they don’t dominate the rankings for every search result page is that search engines put a lot of emphasis on determining relevancy.

Text Is the Currency of the Internet

Relevancy is the measurement of the theoretical distance between two corresponding items with regards to relationship. Luckily for Google and Microsoft, modern-day computers are quite good at calculating this measurement for text.

By my estimations, Google owns and operates well over a million servers. The electricity to power these servers is likely one of Google’s larger operating expenses. This energy limitation has helped shape modern search engines by putting text analysis at the forefront of search.Quite simply, it takes less computing power and is much simpler programmatically to determine relevancy between a text query and a text document than it is between a text query and an image or video file. This isthe reason why text results are so much more prominent in search results than videos and images.

So what does this emphasis on textual content mean for SEOs?

To me,it indicates that my time is better spent optimizing text than images orvideos. This strategy will likely have to change in the future as computers get more powerful and energy efficient, but for right now text should be every SEO’s primary focus.

This is especially true until Google finds better ways to interpret and grade non-textual media.

But Why Content?

The most basic structure a functional website could take would be a blank page with a URL. For example purposes, pretend your blank page is on the fake domain (Get it? It is a blank page.) Unfortunately for the search engines, clues like top-level domains (.com, .org, and so on), domain owners (WHOIS records), code validation, and copyright dates are poor signals for determining relevancy.This means your page with the dumb domain name needs some content before it is able to rank in search engines.

The search engines must use their analysis of content as their primary indication of relevancy for determining rankings for a given search query.For SEOs, this means the content on a given page is essential for manipulating—that is, earning—rankings. In the old days of AltaVista and other search engines, SEOs would just need to write “Jessica Simpson”hundreds times on the site to make it rank #1 for that query. What could be more relevant for the query “Jessica Simpson” than a page that says Jessica Simpson 100 times? (Clever SEOs will realize the answer is a page that says “Jessica Simpson” 101 times.)

This metric, called keyword density, was quickly manipulated, and the search engines of the time diluted the power of this metric on rankings until it became almost useless. Similar dilution has happened to the keywords meta tag, somekinds of internal links, and H1 tags. Despite being more sophisticated, modern-day search engines still work essentially the same way they did in the past—by analyzing content on the page.

Hey, Ben Stein, thanks for the history lesson, but how does this apply to modern search engines?

The funny thing is that modern-day search engines still work essentially the same way they did back in the time of keyword density.

The big difference is that they are now much more sophisticated. Instead of simply counting the number of times a word or phrase is on a webpage, they use natural language processing algorithms and other signals on a page to determine relevancy.

For example, it is now fairly trivial for search engines to determine that a piece of content is about Jessica Simpson if it mentions related phrases like “Nick Lachey” (her ex husband),“Ashlee Simpson” (her sister), and “Chicken of the Sea” (she is infamous for thinking the tuna brand “Chicken of the Sea” was made from chicken).

The engines can do this for a multitude of languages and with astonishing accuracy.

Don’t believe me?

Try going to Google right now and searching

If your results are like mine, you will see websites about her movies, songs, and sister. Computers are amazing things.In addition to the words on a page, search engines use signals like image meta information (alt attribute), link profile and site architecture, and information hierarchy to determine how relevant a given page that mentions “Jessica” is to a search query for “The Simpsons.”

Link Relevancy

As search engines matured, they started identifying more metrics for determining rankings. One that stood out among the rest was link relevancy.

The difference between link relevancy and link popularity (discussed in the previous section) is that link relevancy does not take into account the power of the link. Instead, it is a natural phenomenon that works when people link out to other content. Let me give you an example of how it works. Say I own a blog where Iwrite about whiteboard markers. (Yes, I did just look around my office for an example to use, and yes, there are actually people who blog about whiteboard markers. I checked.)

Ever inclined to learn more about my passion for these magical writing utensils, I spend part of my day reading online what other people have to say about whiteboard markers.On my hypothetical online reading journey, I find an article about the psychological effects of marker color choice. Excited, I go back to my website to blog about the article so (both of) my friends can read about it.

Now here is the critical takeaway.
When I write the blog post and link to the article, I get to choose the anchor text. I could choose something like “clickhere,” but more likely I choose something that it is relevant to the article. In this case I choose “psychological effects of marker color choice.”Someone else who links to the article might use the link anchor text“ marker color choice and the effect on the brain.”People have a tendency to link to content using the anchor text of either the domain name or the title of the page. Use this to your advantage by including keywords you want to rank for in these two elements.This human-powered information is essential to modern-day search engines. These descriptions are relatively unbiased and produced by real people. This metric, in combination with complicated natural language processing, makes up the lion’s share of relevancy indicators online.

Other important relevancy indicators are link sources and information hierarchy.
For example, the search engines can also use the fact that Ilinked to the color choice article from a blog about whiteboard markers to supplement their understanding of relevancy. Similarly, they can use the fact that the original article was located at the URL to determine the high-level positioning and relevancy of the content.

As you will find out later on this website, these secrets are essential for SEOs to do their job. Beyond specific anchor text, proximal text—the certain number of characters preceding and following the link itself—have some value. Something that’s logical, but annoying is when people use a verb as anchor text, such as “Frank said . . . “ or “Jennifer wrote . . .“, using “said” or“wrote” as the anchor text pointing back to the post. In a situation like that,engines have figured out how to apply the context of the surrounding copy to the link.

Tying Together Popularity and Relevancy

So far, we have discussed both popularity and relevancy. These two concepts make up the bulk of Search Engine Optimization theory. They have been present since the beginning of search engines and undoubtedly will be important in the future. The way they are determinedand the relationship between them changes, but they are both fundamental to determining search results.

Popularity and relevancy are the two concepts that make up the bulk of Search Engine Optimization theory.This fact is critical to SEOs. We have very little control over how the major search engines operate, yet somehow we are supposed to keep our jobs. Luckily, these immutable laws of popularity and relevance govern search engines and provide us with some job security.


In this issue, I explained the concepts of popularity and relevancy in relation to modern search engines. This information, along with your prior SEO experience, will make up the foundation for all of the SEO secrets and knowledge that you learn throughout from our website.